On Church Membership

Membership Class coming right up.

We have a “membership class” after our gathering this coming Sunday. This is a class that we utilize for vetting potential members. Their membership status will be determined at the end of the class and is based on their interaction during the class itself. If they make the cut, they’ll be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement along with a waiver and some other documents. Then, we’ll assign the new member/s to various areas of service within the church. They’ll get a special card that will unlock the front doors for them and their tithe will be determined by the elders and taken out via auto-withdraw.

Okay…by now you know I’m being sarcastic (hopefully). This post is meant to be a brief (and I mean brief) Q & A on church membership. Enjoy.

What influences the perception of church membership?

Church Membership carries with it much baggage depending on things like denominational affiliation, geographical region, and at a basic level; the specific local church from which you came. To some, church membership was seemingly set up to be the difference between someone having meaning and significance in the local church or not having it. If you were a member then you were in…if you weren’t then you could come and go as you please and no one would care or reach out. Still to others, church membership was something that they saw being equated with salvation. If you moved to a new town, began attending a local church, and didn’t soon become an official member; well then your level of Christian commitment is in question. Thirdly, there are some who’ve been involved in churches where folks didn’t want to become members…well simply out of an obviously rebellious heart. And that influenced them to believe certain things about the topic.

Is local church membership necessary for or evidence of salvation? Is it the end game?

Well, no one with any theological clout would argue a “yes” answer to these two questions. Let me clarify that church membership cannot be legitimately equated with salvation. In other words, there are plenty of solid, godly, brothers and sisters in Christ who are active and vital parts of their local bodies and are NOT on any membership roles. Conversely, there are plenty of local church members in the world who bicker, complain, and cause division more than serve as a part of a family. They may simply show up on a Sunday morning, get served, check that box, and and believe wholeheartedly that their part is done; that somehow their part was simply to grace the rest of the body with their presence. There are church members who aren’t disciples of Jesus and there are disciples of Jesus who aren’t members of a local church.

So what’s the definition of church membership?

Church membership is something that every Christian who’s a real Christian believes in. “Oh wow, Rob! You’ve lost your mind!” Well, hear me out. What I mean by this is that even most folks who will never join a local church body (meaning add their name to a role), based on them not seeing it in the scriptures, agree that they are functional members of the church. They would simply refuse to be put on a role. The argument for this is typically, “I’ve been a member of THE Church since God saved me and I’ve been a member of THIS church since I began attending and contributing.” They would assert that there’s no need for their name to be officially listed on a role somewhere for them to be a member. There’s actually quite a bit of truth to this. So you see, everyone is a fan of church membership really. It’s usually how it’s done or the official sense of it that gets a bad rap. And for many who have been exposed to bad or at least unhelpful churches…I can’t say that I blame them.

Okay…so what’s the definition, Rob?

You’re right, Rob. I’ll get to the point. Membership in a local body is much like baptism. Though they aren’t close to being equal, as baptism is a sacrament set up by Christ himself, they are similar in that they are symbols. When I get baptized I’m declaring publicly that Christ died the death I deserved, and that he rose from death, conquering sin, death, and Satan forever. So, my baptism is my public confession of this. I would assert that church membership in an official sense is my public declaration that I’m in. It’s me publicly saying, “I love being a part of this family and I’m in for the long haul.” Notice how I said “love being a part” and not “would love to be a part”. An individual or couple or family becoming official members of a local church is really a public statement of what is already true. They’ve generally already been submitting to leadership. They’ve generally already been doing their part of holding church leadership accountable. They’re likely already taking part in serving. In other words, they’ve already committed. This is just them stating it publicly. That’s all.

Well then, if that’s all it is, why do we have it? Can’t it just be assumed?

While many churches vary in how they handle church membership, there are a few reasons that stretch across many local bodies. Here’s a brief list…

Church Discipline and Discipleship

There’s always this issue that comes up. If someone joins a church as a member they are formally submitting to the authority of that church and agreeing to participate in that authority as well. In so doing they are inviting the leadership and the other members of that church to watch them; to guard their hearts. They are saying, “if you see me stray from the faith, tell me and I’ll do the same for you”. They are inviting loving correction when necessary and they’re committing to lovingly correcting others when necessary.

Now, a church could presumably function in such a way that says, “if you become a regular attender and claim to be a believer…we’re going to hold you accountable to that and love you in that way” (no formal membership necessary). If a church has a strong biblical understanding of church discipline and peacemaking, then it is possible to function in this way without having the need for formal church membership to accommodate for loving and biblical church discipline.

Soul Care

As a pastor and elder I can tell you it’s easier to keep track of who I’m going to be held accountable for with some sort of formal membership. At Hillside, we have some who are long-time attenders and functional members who haven’t taken the formal step toward being on a membership role. This isn’t too difficult of an issue because of the size of our local church. However, when a body gets into the 300 or really even 200 people mark, it becomes much more of a task to make sure everyone is getting the care they need throughout the family. Having an actual list of members is very helpful in this regard.

With all of that being said, and at the current size of our local church, we could function and make sure the members AND long-time attenders are being cared for, prayed for, and loved.

Right to Vote

We are an elder-led Congregational church body. That’s essentially how we function. What that means is that the elders make lots of smaller decisions throughout the year, some larger decisions in which the congregation is informed of the decision as it’s being made, and some decisions are left entirely up to the vote of the body. Any time a pastor is hired, an elder is put in place, or a sizable budget update needs to happen; these are all items that require our congregations input and approval through voting. This is the one item of the reasons for membership that I just don’t see a way around having some sort of formal membership. If membership were simply assumed, then anyone who has been attending for a few weeks and can speak Christianeze could potentially come to our next family meeting and vote to approve or disapprove something major regarding the direction of our church. So, it seems that the use of a formal membership would be the most sensible and simple way to get past this one.

So what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is that some folks seem to make formal church membership sit on a higher pedestal than it actually needs to be. After all, if you’re a member of the Church then you’re a member of whichever local church you attend regularly, regardless of a list. However, it’s difficult to get around the helpfulness of having a list. At the end of the day it’s an extremely helpful tool for your leadership as well as the other “members” of your local church. It’s a great way to let everyone know you’re in for the long haul, you’re a part of the family, and you’re not going anywhere.

Whether you agree with this or not, thanks for reading and I hope it has been thought provoking and helpful.

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